Labour’s rocky hold on Dumbarton

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by Kirsteen Fraser

There is a curious thing happening to the Scottish political scene right now, and it’s something that a few of the old hands are having difficulty understanding.  I don’t usually get too bogged down in covering my local political scene preferring to cover national and international issues but in recent weeks I have noticed a curious phenomenon overtaking the streets of the Dumbarton constituency.

Dumbarton, once one of the most impenetrable Labour heartlands in Scotland, might just turn SNP yellow in just two short weeks.  That’s if the latest Ipsos Mori polling is to believed, the SNP have now overtaken Labour by 11 points and look to make gains not only in the regional vote but the constituency vote as well.  But how has this happened?  Why was there such a massive turnaround in the SNP’s fortunes in a matter of weeks?  Speaking to a few people in my local area reveals why.

James Duncan from Dumbarton is scathing as he looks at a Scottish Labour leaflet which has a picture of Jackie Baillie and a male “young voter” pictured on the same Dumbarton High Street where we are speaking now: “He needs his head checking if he thinks Labour are the best choice to look out for the youth.  It was Labour who brought in all the fees for students and got all pally with bankers.  They must think we’ve all got the memories of goldfish or something.”

The feeling of discontent in James’ voice is palpable, his voice strong as he turns the leaflet over a few times to read and re-read before jabbing it with a paint flecked finger:  “You know all I hear now from Labour is that we must save the Vale, we must save it.  Who wanted to get rid of our hospital in the first place?”

The simmering discontent that was prevalent in 2007 has increased tenfold now but back then it was more a case of strategic voting, an anyone but Labour situation.  Now the game has changed and the SNP now have the opportunity to defend their time in government and prove that SNP policies have improved the Scottish people’s lot.  There is a sense of anger with Labour that hasn’t dissipated since the last Scottish Election.  It has grown in strength thanks to the dire economic situation.  For some time now people have not seen an engaging idea come from Labour.

The SNP’s Small Business Bonus has been a considerable boost for small businesses who before may have gone under as the bills continued to soar during the darkest times of the recession.

Steven Hobson, owner of Hobson’s Choice in the Labour stronghold of Alexandria is frank about why he has changed his mind on who to vote for: “I was always Labour, always.  My parents always voted Labour and I always voted Labour.  In the past few years I owned my own business and Labour basically ignored us.  Labour did nothing for us and the SNP helped small businesses like us survive – over the past three years I’ve saved over £7500.  That just wouldn’t have happened under Labour before.”

But this isn’t the only policy that has shaken the local political tree.  Margaret Fraser, a local pensioner, says there is one policy that her swayed her vote.  “Free prescriptions,” she nods holding her shopping.  “Free prescriptions, my daughter had breast cancer a few years ago and she had to pay for her prescriptions.  You’d think that for something like cancer you would get exempted from paying prescription fees but you aren’t.  It’s a disgrace how many diseases aren’t exempted but as soon as I heard that the SNP were doing away with the prescription charges that was it.  I decided who I was voting for.  It was an instant decision after seeing what my daughter went through.”

Margaret is the quintessential west of Scotland wifey and again a former Labour voter, what changed for her is a pledge jumped from a manifesto and became reality for her and her family.

What the SNP have managed to do is escape the hell of manifesto pledges being immaterial or meaningless to the average voter on the street.  Free prescriptions are something tangible that most voters will either benefit from or know someone who will.  When Joe Public is worried about how much money they have left in their pockets every incentive and scheme that help them get by have an emotional as well as financial impact.  The Council tax freeze again means less pressure on families already having to cope on reduced incomes.  Measures like that mean more than politics to those struggling to make ends meet.  The key to winning an election isn’t sound-bites or impressive rhetoric, not when times are tough.  When the chips are down voters want proof that politicians want to help them out.  The SNP have done a better job at proving their mettle than Labour.  This isn’t just down to the media appearances or the inches in newspapers but the action seen to be done.  The SNP have stolen Labour’s mantle as the caring party in Scotland.

The events of the past week have been a huge turnaround for the SNP.  At the start of the campaign even Alex Salmond was admitting that the SNP were the underdogs and there was the real fear in SNP ranks that their four years in government would be a yellow blip in a sea of Labour red.  Now that fear is washing away as the SNP take to the streets to campaign and there is the distinct possibility that the SNP may win another term in government, breaking decades of Labour party influence on the psyche of Scotland.

There is no doubt that Alex Salmond is tough act to follow and any opposition rival would be hard pushed to keep him in check but part of Labour’s current electoral problem is that they have no one with the skills to combat the gravitas of Salmond.  His cool slick performances and fast come backs have made him both equally loved and loathed, not least by the Scottish Labour’s back benches.  However Salmond’s personal popularity gives him an emotive link to a voter, one that that is difficult to counter when policy comes into the mix.  The only other party leader in Scotland who has proved capable of fending off Alex Salmond has been the Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, who could by no stretch of the imagination be called the natural political bed mate of the average Glaswegian brickie.

Having interviewed Iain Gray over a year ago I can confirm that he is indeed a perfectly affable person and does indeed care about the fortunes of Scots.  Both of us sat in the Scottish Parliament after our interview and chatted about the problems in the care sector and the elderly and disabled.  Gray was in particular concerned about care slots being steadily eroded down to fifteen minute as local councils struggled to cope with the demand for free personal care.

It was a side that Gray should have been showing to the public rather than some junior hack.  Part of me wanted to grab Gray and shake him until he realised that issues like that were exactly the kind of thing he should be fighting for and talking about, rather than simply being at the forefront of the weekly squabble-fest that was First Minister’s Questions.  Iain Gray seemed to be a loss as to how to combat the charisma of the SNP and their policies and lost in the tide of impotent venom that has been present since Labour lost the last election.

But therein lies the problem now with Labour, and not in just Scotland.  For four years Labour in Scotland has found itself at a loose end, unable to understand what makes the public tick anymore and left reeling from their 2007 defeat.  Scottish Labour became unable to think of policies that stir the heart of the voter, unable to come up with a policy that will stir a passionate response from the public.  Their mandatory sentencing for knife carriers was derided by the public and media alike.  Labour now comes across as tired, stumped and unsure of their footing in this new political arena.  The SNP have managed to wrench key Labour policies such as the NHS, free personal care and employment away from them, policies that Labour should have thrust into the public eye themselves and made a song and dance about.  Their hatred of the SNP has blinded them as to what the public want and need from their political parties.  The SNP have stepped into the void that Labour blindly left.

Even on the streets of Dumbarton where there are still a few of the hardcore Labour voters but none can say that Salmond and the SNP have done a bad job.  There is the odd whisper of Megrahi but this becomes lost under the real everyday worries such as where the money is coming from to pay the next unexpected bill, and will the kids get a good education?  Will they get jobs once they leave school, will I get another job if I’m made redundant, who is going to help me look after my parents as they become more frail?  These are the issues that the people in my constituency of Dumbarton care about, and this will likely be replicated in every village, town and city across Scotland.  The SNP have it would seem to have impressed after four years of government with both their actions and their words.

Despite all this, the disillusionment with Labour and favourable polling data the SNP would be wise to not be complacent and see victory as a done deal this early in the game.  If a day is a long time in politics then two weeks to Election Day is an eternity.  Only time will tell if the SNP can keep the momentum going.